By Anna Merlan
On an early Friday morning in November 2018, the ground gave way in Anchorage, Alaska. At 8:29 a.m., a magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit just north of the city. Street lights blinked off, highways began to buckle, and buildings shook as enormous cracks opened in the walls and floors, coughing plumes of dust into the air. Later that day, photojournalist Marc Lester used a small plane to capture a chilling photo of Vine Road, a major artery, fractured like a puzzle, detritus scattered across it like broken toys.
For Ian Dickson, things only began to get truly bizarre later in the day. At the time, Dickson was a communications specialist for the Alaska Earthquake Center, the U.S. Geological Survey’s contractor in Alaska. About three hours after the quake, he watched in alarm as all of the Earthquake Center’s social media channels—Facebook, Twitter, direct messages on both platforms—were flooded with people saying that a larger earthquake had been predicted. Worse still, Dickson said, “some of the things I saw were highly specific, saying an 8.4 earthquake was predicted in the next hour. Scientists can’t predict that. Absolutely not.”
The Alaska Earthquake Center is a central clearinghouse for earthquake information in the state, both for scientists and for the public. The organization operates a set of seismic monitoring systems across the state, and works on mitigating the impacts not only of earthquakes but of tsunamis and volcanoes, the trifecta of catastrophic events in the region. The immediate aftermath of the quake had been “chaotic,” Dickson says, but also routine. “People look to us for the basic science information: magnitude, location, depth,” he says. “Then they want to know about aftershocks, and we can give general ideas about what to expect.” Though no deaths were reported, the quake caused $30 million in damage, and the aftershocks were indeed significant: Between November and January there were about 350 of a magnitude 3.0 or more, some big enough to cause additional damage.
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